Donna Gardner

Donna Gardner teaches during a class for medical assistant students

Donna Gardner laughs when she remembers her three young children helping her get through a medical assisting associate’s program as a single mom with a full-time job.

“They would hold my flashcards for me,” she said. “I mean, they couldn't even read and they would sit there and go ‘Yay, Mommy!’ whether it was right or wrong! They helped me learn all 208 of those bones in the body.”

Today, Gardner does the teaching as the director of the Medical Assisting Program at Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences at Rockhurst University. Her journey to that leadership position started when she decided to pursue a degree.

She worked at a college health center for seven years before choosing to go further in the health care field as a medical assistant.

“I wanted something that I knew was always going to be around and where, regardless of what you do, people will always need health care,” she said. “I could have chosen to be a nurse. That wasn't what I wanted to do. I didn't like the hours. Medical assisting did everything that I needed, hour-wise.

“When I did this, I was a single parent,” she continued. “There was just no way that I could manage all of the kids and do nursing 12 hours out of the day. I couldn't do it. So medical assisting was a great fit for me.”

As a family provider, Gardner wanted job security while doing something she enjoyed. As a mother, she wanted something that allowed her extra time with her kids, especially weekends and holidays.

She started taking classes and progressing through the program, crediting a counselor that worked closely with her and strong family support.

“[Having kids] doesn't have to be an obstacle,” she said. “You just have to have somebody in your corner, some support system in place, which I did – I had my mom. A grandmother, an aunt, somebody – you need some support system.”

Gardner eventually reached her goal of obtaining her associate degree (A.A.S. Medical Assisting Technology, Kalamazoo Valley Community College), but the journey came with rewards that will span generations.

“It was the best feeling because I got to be there to take care of my kids, and – here's the other benefit of it: My kids actually watched me gain an education,” she said. “I was the first one to graduate in my family, and with them watching me it's now important to them.”

Gardner reports with pride that all of her kids have gone on to college and have degrees. She has a son in California with a master’s degree, which she raced him for (he beat her by a few weeks, she says, because “his program ended before mine.”)

Pride runs both ways in the family.

When Gardner was set to graduate with her bachelor’s degree (B.S. Science, Western Michigan University), her son was in the same graduating class. He flew in from out of state just in time to grab his cap and gown and get in line for the ceremony.

The rest of the story is memorialized on her Saint Luke’s office wall in the form of a framed newspaper article.

“He was actually in front of me,” she recalls. “And he looked at me and he says, ‘Nope.’ He says, ‘Mom, I want you to go first.’

“He moved me in front of him and that was just the coolest thing ever,” she said.

Gardner went from her kids holding her flashcards to walking with them in cap and gown and racing them for degrees (she earned her MPA in Public Administration with a Healthcare Focus from WMU).

Now she’s paying it forward.

At Saint Luke’s, she is helping students on their own journeys. Every journey begins with a step, and that’s the decision to complete a degree.

“When people are looking at this profession,” she said, “you need to stop and think about it: What is your need? Where do you intend to go with this? What do YOU want to see happen?”

Speaking from her own experiences, Gardner offered the following advice for anyone thinking of starting their own journey: “It has to be important to YOU. Because if it's important to you, you'll make a way. You'll find a way.”


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